Winnie-the-Pooh once said that the only reason for being a bee is for making honey, “and the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it!” Well, Pooh must have missed science class, because bees have another important role – pollinating our food crops so we can enjoy our fruits, vegetables and herbs! Without the bees, our gardens and farmers’ markets – not to mention the grocery produce section – would be skimpy on the strawberries, watermelons, pumpkins, almonds and other favorites that ease the rumblies in our tummies.

Bee on purple flower

Purple flowers are the bee’s knees!

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Sedum

Bees and butterflies swarm to the flower heads of sedum in late summer.

Photo Credit: Mark Kane

Bee on sunflower

Sunflowers don’t just charm garden-dwelling humans – they attract bees and other beneficial insects, too!

Photo Credit: ©2005 Buglady Consulting

Bee

Bee kind to bees – they pollinate flowers, fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as make honey!

Photo Credit: Amy Dee Stephens

Many other insects and bees are pollinators, too, but the honeybee has become a flagship species lately due to a concerning phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Honeybees have begun to die off mysteriously. Although most of the speculation around the cause of CCD has been disproved (theories range from virus to cell phone use), one cause seems constant – chemical use. Not only are chemicals absorbed into our food, they seem to be crippling our agricultural friend, the little bee.

Other than heed the often-touted warning to use fewer chemicals, what can you do to help this garden-loving, beneficial creature? Grow more plants! Select the right types, and you’ll be joining a network of citizens across the country determined to save the future of our food – one bee at a time.

Since you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar (or in this case, bees with nectar), lure the bees into your garden with nectar plants! Flowers with short nectar tubes (or no tubes at all) are easiest for many bees to drink from, so think sunflowers, goldenrods, asters or yarrow. Plants with wide, single petals, such as daisies, cosmos, dahlias and zinnias provide the best landing platform for bees. (Since bumblebees have slightly longer tongues than honeybees, they prefer larkspur, delphinium and columbines.) And for the most part, bees are partial to blue, purple and yellow flowers.

Some other favorite bee perennials are hollyhocks, roses, sedum, tansy, buttercups and clematis. Annuals include poppies, marigolds and clover. In a true pollination paradise for bees and other pollinating insects, herbs are the “forbidden fruit.” Lavender truly is bee heaven, catnip is the bee’s buzz, mint is a must, and don’t forget bee balm – the name says it all!

Of course, if you grow food-producing plants, you’re given yourself a double blessing: The bees will thank you, and the plants in your yard will flourish. Consider growing vegetables like cucumbers, peppers and squash. And bees just love fruits of the berry kind, including blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. And any fruiting trees, especially citrus and crabapple, are a particular bee favorite.

Flowering tree favorites range from the Eastern redbud to the American holly. Buckeyes, maples, magnolias and willows are also bee-friendly. Some recommend the silver linden (Tilia tomentosa) as the very best bee-tree choice! This beauty has leaves with attractive silver underneath, and blooms with clusters of fragrant, yellow flowers that are reported to be narcotic to bees. In fact, in some parts, it’s simply called the bee tree.

Of course, there are a number of other great bee practices to help keep the bees – and other wildlife in your garden – healthy. Just put them on your “honey-do” list:

  • Water. Provide a water source, such as a dripping faucet, bowl or birdbath with stones for bees to land on.
  • Wood. Not all bees live in a hive system. Some have solitary nests, like the carpenter bees. Leave a pile of dead wood or branches around for them to move into. Place the wood behind a shed or in a back corner where there’s less human activity – and less chance to “stir up a hornet’s nest,” so to speak.
  • Dirt. Some bees build mud houses. Leave a pile of dirt or a bare patch in the yard for bees to use, especially near water. Mason bees actually roll up mud balls to build their nests. (Mason bees are excellent pollinators and may be the “last resort” replacement for honeybees.)
  • Avoid using chemicals. Oh yes, there it is again! It’s not always easy for gardeners who want the perfect-looking yard to stay away from chemical treatments, but please try to – it’s worth it on so many levels!

By the way, you city dwellers have a new and important role in all this, too. According to the book, A Spring Without Bees, by Michael Schacker, a 2005 study in France determined that city bees were more successful than country bees. Why? Warmer temperatures allow for a longer pollination season. Since bees only travel a couple of miles from their hives, providing urban nectar sources falls on individual gardeners – whether it’s a simple window box, balcony container or a full-blown bee-friendly garden. So build it and they will come!

Just bee-ware in your quest, of course: Some people are allergic to bee stings. While venom can pose a serious health risk to some people, more often than not, bees pay no attention to humans. They’re simply too busy being, well, busy bees – going about the important job of drinking nectar and transferring pollen particles from plant to plant.

Avid gardeners are quick to figure out that a buzzing garden is a happy garden. Or as our friend Winnie-the-Pooh says, “That buzzing means something!”